Half as Old as Time

The Last Crusade
Thursday 9th March 2023

 

Breakfast this morning was eaten at the very civilised time of 7:45am. Everyone else were already there. We sat with "the family" who really enjoyed the Petra at Night experience last night despite being hassled by an inebriated local. Although they all agreed that the highlight of the evening was when Kevin missed his chair and ended up on the floor!

Half an hour later we all gathered in the lobby raring to get going on the next stage of our Jordanian adventure. We piled our luggage into the back of the minibus and settled down to our journey to Madaba, with a few stops along the way.

Our first stop happened after only ten minutes! We were stll in Wadi Musa when we pulled over outside a small unassuming building which was said to be the site where Moses struck the earth with his staff and "water sprung forth".

Whilst roaming the dessert searching for the promised land Moses had to literally perform miracles to find water around these parts.

We all entered the very plain and simple building where in its centre was a spring. Water flowed into a pool from one corner and then flowed out of another, continuing down to Wadi Musa.

The only other thing in the room was this lump of rock in the corner which is said to be the rock that Moses struck. We all gathered around it for a group photo then left.

Apparently there's another location near Mount Nebo that also calims to be the location of Moses' Spring. Perhaps both or neither are true.

Back on the road we continued along the King's Highway out of Wadi Musa. They were still constructing a new grand entrance into the city, a series of limestone blocks, all similar but slightly different sizes.

We continued North through small villages

Musa opened up about his marriage, especially how it was arranged. His mother knew of a suitable girl and arranged to visit her mother for coffee. Armed with a photograph of her son she talked about his best qualities.

It went well and progressed to the next stage, the meeting of the fathers for coffee where they talked prospects, facts and figures. Then came the third and final stage where the families meet and the future husband and wife officially meet for the first time.

His wife was then only 14. Musa said his mother wanted to get in there quick because she was quite the catch. They waited until she was 18 before they got married. He was 24.

"Would you like to see the crusader castle of Shoubak?" asked Musa changing the subject. "Yes please" I piped up before anyone could say no. It involved a slight detour but I personally would have been disappointed to have missed it.  Apparently its one of only six in Jordan reasonably still intact today.

So we turned off the main road and followed a more ancient route through a landscape that was just as arid but also been toiled to grow vegetables. 

A short distance from the castle, on a hill opposite, we pulled over. It was clear to see how it was strategically positioned, perched on top of a hill, controlling the trade that passed along this ancient highway.

The view of the ruins was slightly ruined by the wind turbines behind it. 

It was built in 1115 by the crusader Baldwin I of Jerusalem and also went by the name of Montreal.

Back in the minibus we drove down to the foot of the castle. Musa mentioned there were a few caves in the hill, secret tunnels to access or indeed exit the castle in the event of a siege. He remembers when he was young exploring a few of them. 

Continuing around the hill we came the village of Al Jaya and to another attraction, one that I had seen recently on TV, the self-proclaimed "smallest hotel in the world"!

The eccentric Mohammed Al Malaheen, who's also known as Abu Ali had converted an old Volkswagen Beatle into a "bedroom" when he retired in 2011. He called it his project to bring more tourists to this little corner of Jordan.

His daughter had decorated the interior, creating an inviting nest of pink and burgundy. Padded fabric covered all traces of the car so there would be no hard surfaces. It was filled with an abundance of floral pillows and a warm blanket.

I could easily have seen myself sleeping in there.

It certainly was a room with a view, because out of its window you could see the castle in all its glory. 

We listened to Abu tell us all about his project. I couldn't understand a word he said but you could see his pride and passion for it.

He took a shine to Julie, giving her a small gemstone as a gift. He then took a shine to me, wrestling me like an older brother, asking "How old are you?"

He then welcomed us inside his decorated cave he called Baldwin's Grotto. I'm not too sure if this was part of his hospitality space or his actual home. It felt quite homely with posters on the wall of Jordanian royalty. 

We felt extremely welcomed regardless. He even offered us a coffee.

On the fridge in the corner there were, in addition to the pink flamingoes, purple tulips red roses and a fascinating image of two rifle carrying bedouins that looked like they were cut from a National Geographical magazine in the 1960s.

It was time to move on, so we discreetly slipped him a few dinars in support of his project and joined everyone else on the minibus. He waved us off with genuine warmth. 

We continued North for about an hour and a half, rejoining the desert highway, where we stopped for a comfort break in the town of Al-Sultani.

It was a really nice resthouse/handicraft shop. It had this wonderful atrium in the middle bringing light into the room over and above a small fountain. 

Although they had several caged birds which wasn't nice to see.

We sat down at a table with a coffee and got talking to Musa. We mentioned I had bought my father an Iraqi note. He explained that despite his obvious shortcomings many Jordanians actually respected Saddam Hussein because Iraq funded many worthwhile projects in the country.

He talked a bit about the Gulf War (1990-91) and of his time in the Jordanian Army during this period. Even showing us an old black & white photo of himself in army fatigue and sporting a mighty fine moustache.

Back in the bus we continued on our way to Kerak turning off the Desert Highway to follow the King's Highway to the finest of all the crusader castles in Jordan.

We pulled over to admire the impressive view of the castle up on the hill. It was built in

The road continued up the hill, through the town of Kerak towards the entrance to the castle. Before we got off the bus Musa suggested we should organise getting some falafel wraps for lunch for when we returned.

Julie didn't want falafel, others weren't happy either, but I understood Musa's rational. This was the trade off for a lesuirely breakfast and the Shoubak detour. We had more to see and do today, so there was no time to take an hour out for lunch.

We arrived just as a water tanker parked up. Musa explained how the scarcity of water means that people had to buy their water, filling large storage tanks to keep them going for a few months.

The castle was approached by a bridge over a moat dug several metres down, although to the right of us the hill fell away suddenly making the drop seem far more significant.

There was another bridge, to the left, that looked like a makeshift fire escape, crossing the moat to a small door. It may even have been the Crusader Gate, the orginal main entrance. Apparently they were built that way, with a narrow entrance to make it easier to defend.

We entered through the larger Ottoman Gate into a small courtyard. The first thing we noticed was the stunning view from its ramparts. We looked down to the Dead Sea and then the West Bank of Palestine & Israel.

We all followed Musa. After his day off yesterday he returned to full tour guide mode and reeled off the facts and figures about the castle. It was built during the same time as Shobak by Baldwin I of Jerusalem in 1142. 

There were some fierce battles here between the crusading Franks and the armies of Saladin. In 1183 after a long siege the castle fell to the Egyptian ruler.

It was all fascinating stuff, although I must admit my mind wandered off every know and again as my attention span reached its limit. I stared at a stone cannon ball by my feet, only it wasn't fired from a cannon as it hadn't been invented yet. I gave it a kick, expecting it to roll but I only succeeded in stubbing my toe.

The castle was built on four levels, two dug down into the hill and two built on top. Moving on, we descended into its bowels, entering the kitchen area, where two large mill stones lay on the ground. There were also several troughs for storage and apparently the door on the right lead to a large oven.

It was certainly the more interesting of rooms, as most were just dark bare four walls.

 

Back outside we stood on the ramparts looking out towards the King's Highway, as it looped around another hill, where earlier we stopped to take a photo.

Musa explained how perfect the castle was positioned, with full sight of what was at the time the main trade route from Syria to Egypt. Those who contolled the road could collect taxes from those caravans. 

It was a long way down and legend has it that Renauld de Chatillon executed his enemies by throwing them off the walls to their death from this very spot.

With steep rocky slopes and almost 360 degree visibility it was also perfectly positioned to protect itself from attack. It only fell after a long siege.

We followed Musa towards the keep at the Southern end of the castle. This was a stronghold into which they would retreat if the castle's defences had been breached.

(rossette_carving.jpg)

It was then back down below, passing along the way an ornate rossete design carved into the limestone. One of the few carvings we saw. 

The underground passages continued to the prison cells. There were seven of them in total, all dark and dinghy. It must have been a miserable existence being a prisoner in such conditions.

Emerging into the daylight felt wonderful even after only spending 5 minutes in there!

However it wasn't long before we returned back beneath the ground to the marketplace,  a long corridor with large rooms on either side, a medieval subteranean shopping arcade. 

We walked towards the light at the end of the tunnel and came out near the small courtyard where we began.

Before leaving, we spent a few minutes looking around the few pieces of carved rock that lay around the ground. This green door caught my attention. It was really basic but at the same time quite theatrical, badly painted to create shabby chic.

One last look towards the Dead Sea before we left. I hadn't realised how high the landscape of the West Bank was and how it dropped dramatically to the water. I guess Jordan would look the same from the other direction.

Back in the bus our lunch was waiting for us. I really enjoyed my falafel wrap, even if the falafels were cold. The abstaining Julie opted to survive on a packet of crisps instead. It wasn't any hardship for her. She could easily eat nothing else.

The bus took us through the centre of Karak which was interesting to not only people watch but shop watch. It was fascinating to see the old generation sat around, smoking or drinking coffee whilst the stores sold youthful clothes that wouldn't look out of place back home. A quick snapshot of a culture in transition.

From Karak we pulled away from the King's Highway to join the Dead Sea Highway which was the road that skirted the said Dead Sea. The road began to rapidly head down hill, transporting us from 1000m above sea level to 430m below.

Along the way we saw a sign on the side of the road that told us we had just passed sea level and we kept on going. Fifteen minutes later we reached the lowest point on earth.

The first sight was literally breathtaking, the colour was many shades of blue, the closer to the shore the more irridecent it became.

We noticed how the shoreline was terraced, an alarming sign of how the water level has shrunk over the years. The reality of how the climate has been affected in this part of the world. Apparently in my lifetime it has lost a third of its surface area.

This region, the Southeastern corner of the Dead Sea was known as Southern Ghor, the lowest land on earth and believed to have been the location for the five "Cities of the Plain", Soddom, Gomorrah, Zoar, Zeboim and Admah.

The first two I had heard of before because of the biblical story where God destroyed Soddom and Gomorrah as punishment for their depravity. Zoar sounds familiar as I'm sure there's a chapel near our home named after it. The other two were new to me.

We were driving at some speed now, hurtling around corners trying to make up time. I joked that "if we were going to go over the edge then at least we'd float!"

Blowing my theory that we were in a rush, or perhaps I was right and Musa felt the need to calm the driver down a bit, we pulled over at a parking area for us all to get out and have a closer look at the stunning blue waters.

What was striking was the salt deposit along the watermark. The water of the Dead Sea is nine times saltier than seawater!

(the_pillar_of_lots_wife)

Musa drew our attention to a rock formation they call the "Wife of Lot".

The story goes back to the bible and the destruction of Soddom & Gomorrah. The people fleeing the act of God were told not to look back, but "the wife of Lot" who did have a name didn't listen and was turned into a pillar of salt.

(wadi mujaib)

Continuing our journey North we passed the opening of Wadi Mujaib, a valley 

Musa talked about how the health giving benefits of the natural springs in these areas was known back in the days of the Romans with documented evidence of King Herod enjoying a spa retreat here!

Julie and I had thought about adding a few nights at a hotel near the Ma'an Springs but couldn't get their booking system to work. Instead we have 3 night at the Movenpick Dead Sea resort to look forward too.

All the large five star Dead Sea resorts were found in a cluster around the Northern end. It wasn't long before we came accross them. We passed the Kempinski, Marriot and the Movenpick, (Julie and I smiled secretly) before turning off for the Holiday Inn resort. 

For a small fee we could have access to their pool and more importantly to the Dead Sea.

With our swimming costumes donned we walked down a boardwalk quite some distance towards the water. It seemed that every year they have to add a few more metres.

First, I made a b-line for some free loungers beneath a gazebo for shade. Then, once we had staked our claim, we walked down to the shore. 

There was a large barrel full of mud for everyone to help themselves. I don't get the concept of "less is more" and covered myself almost literally from head to toe.

I waited for a while for the mud to dry a little and allow its nutrient rich ingredients to do its work. Then I was ready to tick off a bucket list experience.

I had read that the floor could be a little stoney so had packed out water shoes. I tentively walked out, expecting an uneven ground, half wondering if I could walk on water (I couldn't). It was gently slopping and didn't feel rough or uneven underfoot. I carried on until I was up to my knees in the salty water.

I then slowly lowered myself and lfted my legs. That's when the buoyancy took over. It was the strangest of feelings. I could float without any other than keeping my balance but laying flat with arms outstretched sorted that out. I was surprised how much at ease I felt. 

Julie was busy taking photographs of everyone enjoying themselves before we swapped places and she had a go. 

I hadn't washed all the mud off my face so I returned to the water scooping up the saline solution and rubbing it all over my face. Now that was a mistake! It stung like hell and not just the eyes. Eventually the pain subsided and I felt rejuvinated, tingling and alive, but I won't be doing that again.

We returned to our loungers to dry off and to lounge intensely. 

It wasn't long before we were in need of some refreshments so we walked all the way back up to the hotel. Not wanting to trek all the way back down again we stayed by the hotel pool.

The sun was just starting to lower itself in the sky when it was time for us to leave. Our itinerary had us visiting Mount Nebo next but Musa decided it would be better to skip it and visit tomorrow. It was getting late. The sun would have set by the time we could get there. "Perhaps a 6:45am breakfast would have helped" I thought but kept it to myself. 

We left the Dead Sea following the signs for Madaba. The road meandered its way back up towards 1000m above sea. All the while I was hoping for a sunset photo op. It wasn't easy from the bus. No sooner had you seen a lovely view it had gone.

Thankfully Musa asked the driver to pull over where it was safe and we all got out to enjoy the view. Unfortunately power cables got in the way of a clear shot. I thought if I walked down the hillside a little then I could improve my angle and perhaps get below them. It didn't work. 

Not only was my attempt futile I also got shouted at by a bedouin herding his sheep. I'm not too sure what he was complaining about but Musa suggested  I should retreat my position. "Perhaps we should leave now" he said in his calm voice.

It was almost dark when we passed Mount Nebo on the way to Madaba. It was a good idea to leave it until tomorrow.

It was 7pm when we reached Hotel Miriam or Mariam as their neon sign spelt it. Within a short distance along this street there were three hotels, and three off licences to service them!  They had funny names like Hangover or Off-line.

Whilst we were going through the handing over of the keys, Musa raised the subject of supper. He had already arranged for us to eat at a restaurant which he thoroughly recommeded. Julie gave me a nudge to speak out.

"There's a restaurant here in Madaba where I really want to eat" I said. "and I know that tomorrow is our last night together, so we don't want to miss that"

I suggested that Julie and I could go our own way tonight. I didn't want to drag the whole group with us to a restaurant that some might say was a little pretentious.

"Where is it?" he asked. I explained it was called Carob House and that I had seen their menu on-line and had been looking forward to trying so many of their dishes, especially the Pumpkin Kibbeh. They also marked their dishes as suitable for vegetarians which for me was priceless.

I don't know if it was true or not but Musa said "ah, yes, Carob House. This is where I was planning for us to eat tomorrow night."

With supper sorted, we all went our separate ways, with an 8pm time to reconviene.

The rooms were very basic but the bed was clean at least and it came with the bonus of the classic towel sculptured pair of swans arranged into a heart shape. Despite all the hard work that went into creating it we both just laughed out loud when we first saw it.

We quicky felt disrespectful and felt appreciative of all the effort. Someone went into a great deal of bother to make them!

We didn't spend long in the room, choosing to find the pool and the bar for a drink.

It was a lovely warm evening and pool area was a very pleasant place to relax. Although Julie wasn't going to rush back up for her swimming costume. She noticed a lot of "floaty bits"  on the water. (but it was only leaf debris)

Both Tiffany and Alex had decided to stay at the hotel, both tired after the long day. The rest of us left the hotel on time, following Musa through the streets of Madaba.

I didn't know what to expect. The streets were well lit and paved. I must admit to feeling a lot safer than I had anticipated. The images I had seen on Google maps street view were a few years out of date. When they were taken the area around the hotel was nothing more than wasteland. Since then it's been developed, including a brand new super shiny shopping mall. 

We continued walking down a busy street filled with shops that were still open. At a roundabout the building opposite was adorned with a huge Jordanian flag and an image of a military leader. Musa told us who he was but I can't quite remember. Was it the king's brother? The one who did his fighter jet pilot training at RAF Valley on Anglesey?

We veered to the left, towards St. George's Greek Orthodox Church. Musa mentioned we would be visiting it tomorrow to see its famous mosaic floor.

Just around the corner we came to a narrow pedestrianised street called Al-Yarmouk where we found the restaurant Fokar & Bhar. Musa was welcomed as a close friend, as he introduced us to the chef and owner of the restaurant. He used to cook at a five star restaurant before opening his own place.

All eleven of us sat down at a long table and prepared ourselves for the feast to come. The food began coming out of the kitchen. We weren't given a choice as it was a set menu of all the traditional dishes. Three plates of each dish came, enough for four to share each one. There was plenty of it.

First came the tabouleh, heavy on the parsley, light on the bulgar wheat, just the way I like it and it tasted wonderful. 

Next came Qalayet, the rich tomato and onion stew, delicious and comforting. I could have eaten the whole bowlful but I was mindful that it was to share between four of us.

Next came what Musa described as fatayer but they were nothing like the pizza-style versions we ate in Egypt. These were instead small samosa-style pastry triangles filled with cheese. Again it was difficult to ration myself to just one of them.

The kibbeh looked amazing but unfortunately they were filled with lamb mince. I offered mine to Julie but whilst she enjoyed hers, one was enough for her.

Then the fattoush, a fresh and zesty salad well seasoned with lemon juice and sumac. It was so good.  Not many went for it so I ate more than my fair share.

My favourite dish of the evening was the simplest, mushrooms fried in butter with garlic and rosemary, a woody and earthy combination we had not tried before.

However, the most impressive looking dish of the evening was a vegetable tagine, prepared especially for the only vegetarian at the table. I had most of this dish to myself as everyone else were too polite to eat it, despite my offerings.  

There were other dishes I couldn't eat like a chicken stew and meatballs in a yogurt sauce.

We left full, content and pleasantly surprised that all that food only came to 12 dinars per person. It was definitely the best meal we had so far.

On the way back to the hotel we passed Logma, a cafe that called itself a "sweet shop & coffee house". Despite feeling full we stopped to pick up a cake,  justifying our naughtiness with the classic "there's always room for pudding". 

We pointed to a Baked Basque Cheesecake which looked fabulous but they then smothered it in a chocolate sauce. 

Before locking ourselves in our room to eat cake we called in at the Hangover  Liquor Store for a bottlle of wine. There was a huge choice on offer and we opted for a bottle of white wine from the Mount Nebo vineyards.

Back in our room we tucked into our chocolate smothered cheesecake with our little wooden spoons. Thankfully the sauce was delicious and hadn't ruined it.

We then popped the cork and enjoyed a glass of wine whilst watching camel racing on the television. We noticed they had these little jockey dolls on their backs. 

What began as a hilarious spectacle soon became fascinating to watch.

The story goes that in order to gain an advantage owners were desperate to source the smallest, lightest jockeys so they began using children. Apparently there was an incident where a terrified three year old was strapped to a camel's back. How shocking!

This practice was quite rightly outlawed. So these days, sat on the camel's back is a tiny robot jockey, dressed in their coloured silks.

Meanwhile, running parallel to the track there was another race, a calvacade of SUV's where the remote jockey could control the little robot, which in turn controlled the camel. They could activate a rotating whip to spur on the camel and were also able to shout their commands through the robot.

Whilst the owners would stand to win large prize monies, it less of a spectator sport than say horse racing because of the Islamic faith, there was no betting allowed.

I didn't see the end of the race. It went on forever, so I decided to rollover and go to sleep.

  Next Day >>>  

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